Hao Jingfang, a rising science fiction writer with a PhD degree from China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, has recently beaten Stephen King in this year’s Hugo Awards for science fiction. Following Liu Ciqin who won the honor in 2015 for his best-selling book Three-body Problem, Hao became the second Chinese author to win the award that’s regarded as Nobel Prize of science fiction.
Unlike Liu, whose “hard science fiction” classic Three-body Problem has got a multitude of fans in China, Hao’s novelette Folding Beijing gained fame though Hugo Awards and then got polarized reviews on China’s social media. A representative voice argued that Folding Beijing is obviously “political” and the award of the highest honor in science fiction and fantasy had been due to political reasons.
Some even braved into conjectures that Hao has been advised to keep quiet after the Hugo win in case more discussion and attention is directed to her Folding Beijing story that is interpreted by some as critical of Beijing. The name of China’s capital has long been used by international media to refer to China’s central government.
Despite all the conspiracy theories, Liu, the first Chinese Hugo winner, presented an objective view of the Hugo award. In a recent interview with the People magazine, Liu refuted the unfounded surmises about Folding Beijing. “Results of the Hugo award derive from public vote instead of expert judgement, so I don’t believe individual readers would be swayed by ideological concerns,” he said.
It is also clear that class inequality is by no means peculiar to China, but a universal problem. Folding Beijing could also be Folding New York, London, Rio or Bombay. The speculative society in Hao’s story has rung a bell among readers across borders and societies.
Recent years have seen a rising generation of Chinese writers gain following overseas. Nobel, Hugo and Hans Christian Andersen Awards have all got Chinese winners. The trend is believed to be more propelled by China’s rise to prominence than divergent ideologies with the Anglophone world.
Depiction of a divided world
Several years ago, Hao was still a PhD candidate in economics in Tsinghua. In the summer of 2011, she got an internship with IMF’s Beijing office. Looking down from the glistening office she worked in a skyscraper, she found the capital city of China enticing.
When Christine Lagarde just took office as the Managing Director of IMF in 2011, she visited China, and Hao was one of her assistants during the Beijing trip. The writer later sighed that Largade had met with the highest ranking officials in China and the most influential economists to agree on things that could change the fate of the nation; while she had not actually gotten to meet real people in the country. When VIPs like Lagarde, the “most powerful woman in Europe” come, all the noises, smoggy air, and a sea of people would be prevented from running into them.
Hao also recalled a business trip she took along with two American colleagues in IMF. They had planned a field trip to find out “a true China beyond Beijing”, while the team was taken to a well-off farmer’s home in the middle of China’s Henan province, where there are million acres of fertile farmland and a computer-monitored hog farm. When the interviewed farmer claimed that his family is common in China, the visitors were so impressed that they looked to Hao and said that “China is even more vibrant economically that they could imagine”.
Hao felt embarrassed at the moment, and something Kafka had written came to her mind, “When there is absurdity, there is writing.” In the Guomao area of CBD, the young professional would wear skirt suit and high-heels to attend seminars discussing China’s macro-economy in English, and then she will walk past a ramshackle shantytown on the way to her rented apartment in another corner of Beijing. She would go to the temporary street markets filled with vendors selling cheap goods in the neighborhood, and witness migrant workers carrying their shabby belongings move in and out of the shaky houses, with their little kids by their sides.
Amid the changing scenes, the writer developed a strong sense that there existed two parallel worlds in Beijing. The “policymakers” with capital and power in hand, the office workers with pale faces, and the delivery or security guys - although they live in the same physical space, there is actually barely any intersections. People know it clearly that they live in different worlds.
This recognition in her real life prompted the composition of Folding Beijing, which depicts a future society of China’s capital where people of different classes gain access to different physical spaces and time of sunlight. In order to deal with the problems of over-population or unemployment, three physical layers are constructed to house different people—the elite, middle class and under class.
They all live in Beijing but are separated by different spaces and time of every 48 hours. The most powerful class in the society get to enjoy a whole 24 hours, office workers could use 16 hours to work and live, while those who are constituted by mostly waste cleaners and street vendors are not allowed any sunlight. They only have eight hours at night to be awake for doing their work.
The class inequality is not peculiar to China. It is a universal theme, said the writer in an interview with the Uncanny magazine. “Any informed observer can tell that in a rapidly developing society like contemporary China, disparities of wealth and status are growing wider, faster, but no one has a good solution to the problem. Even in the most free and democratic country, the Occupy Wall Street movement ended up accomplishing very little.” Hao believes the profound problem is present in the human condition, hinting at an eternal dilemma that haunts all humans.
The article is partly based on a People magazine story.